Sunday, June 09, 2013

Clear, concise, and effective English for law students, bar examinees, and legal writers in organizations, private companies, and government offices (09): Use short sentences

Recommended average number of words per sentence in legal documents:

15 words (Federal Register Document Drafting Handbook, October 1998 Revision, page 216)

Between 15 and 18 (“Plain English: Eschew Legalese” by Judge Gerald Lebovits, New York State Bar Association Journal, November/December 2008, page 60)

18 words (“Appellate Practice—Including Legal Writing From A Judge’s Perspective”, page 7, by Judge Mark P. Painter, the only American so far to be appointed to the UN Appellate Tribunal)

20 words or fewer (US Federal Aviation Administration “Writing Standards, Order 1000.36”)

20 words (“Legal Writing in Plain English” by Bryan A. Garner) 20 words (“How to write clearly” from European Commission)

20 to 25 words (“How to create clear announcements” Project on the Use of Plain Language, by Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission”)

20 to 25 words (“Tips for Better Writing in Law Reviews and Other Journals” by Joseph Kimble, Michigan Bar Journal, October 2012)

22 words (“Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer” by Anne Enquist and Laurel Currie Oates)

25 words (“Mightier Than the Sword: Powerful Writing in the Legal Profession” by C. Edward Good)
(Jump to “The modern English sentence is short, averaging below 20 words per sentence”)

[1] “After 14 years as a legal adviser to the Government, I had got into the habit of writing concisely and going straight to the point. I think I might have lost the knack to express myself in a literary style. Government minutes are written in plain English. Now, I try to use short sentences to capture all my ideas and arguments.” (Singapore Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong)

[2] “Legal sentences tend to be long and flabby.” (Prof. Joseph Kimble, president, Thomas Cooley Law School, Michigan, USA; drafting consultant, Plain Language-restyling of the US Federal Rules of Court)

[3] “The genius is having a ten-dollar idea in a five-cent sentence, not having a five-cent idea in a ten-dollar sentence.” (US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in an interview with Bryan A. Garner, Scribes Journal of Legal Writing Volume 13)

[4] “The more complicated your information is, the shorter your sentences should be.” (from “Writing to Win: The Legal Writer: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Will Make Your Case—And Win It” by Steven D. Stark)

[5] “Seeking to be precise, we become redundant. Seeking to be cautious, we become verbose. Our sentences twist on, phrase within clause, within clause, glazing the eyes and numbing the minds our readers. The result is a writing style that is wordy, unclear, pompous, and dull.” (“Plain English for Lawyers” by Richard Wydick, Professor Emeritus in Legal Writing at University of California - Davis; the National University of Singapore uses this book for its Legal Writing Programme.)

[6] “Short sentences are a supreme advantage when communicating with people from a non-English speaking background. If you want your English to be understood worldwide—write short sentences. If you want to avoid embarrassing grammar mistakes and excruciating international misunderstandings—use short sentences. If you want your international clients to read your documents easily, confidently and accurately—use short sentences.” (“Global English for Global Business,” page 38, by Rachel McAlpine)

[7] Examples of long sentences:

BSP Circular No. 702, protection of credit card holders from unfair collection practices (235 words in one sentence)

Banks/quasi-banks and their subsidiary or affiliate credit card companies shall also provide the following information to their cardholders:
1. A table of the applicable fees, penalties and interest rates on credit card transactions, including the period covered by and the manner of and reason for the imposition of such penalties, fees and interest; fees and applicable conversion reference rates for third currency transactions, in plain sight and language, on materials for marketing credit cards, such as brochures, flyers, primers and advertising materials, on credit card application forms, and on credit card billing statements: Provided, That these disclosures are in addition to the full disclosure of the fees, charges and interest rates in the terms and conditions of the credit card agreement found elsewhere on the application form and billing statement; and

2. A reminder to the card holder in the monthly billing statement, or its equivalent document, that payment of only the minimum amount due or any amount less than the total amount due for the billing cycle/period, would mean the imposition of interest and/or other charges; Provided, That such table of fees, penalties and interest rates and reminder shall be printed in plain language and in bold black letters against a light or white background, and using the minimum Arial 12 theme font and size, or its equivalent in readability, and on the first page, if the applicable document has more than one page. 

Senate impeachment rules (106 words in one sentence)
VI. The President of the Senate or the Chief Justice when presiding on the trial may rule on all questions of evidence including, but not limited to, questions of materiality, relevancy, competency or admissibility of evidence and incidental questions, which ruling shall stand as the judgment of the Senate, unless a Member of the Senate shall ask that a formal vote be taken thereon, in which case it shall be submitted to the Senate for decision after one contrary view is expressed; or the Presiding Officer may at his/her option, in the first instance, submit any such question to a vote of the Members of the Senate.

[8] The modern English sentence is short, averaging below 20 words per sentence.

A. From “The Principles of readability” by William DuBay:

In 1880, a professor of English Literature at the University of Nebraska, Lucius Adelno Sherman, began to teach literature from a historical and statistical point of view.

He compared the older prose writers with more popular modern writers such as Macaulay (The History of England) and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He noticed a progressive shortening of sentences over time.

He decided to look at this statistically and began by counting average sentence length per 100 periods. In his book (1893), Analytics of Literature, A Manual for the Objective Study of English Prose and Poetry, he showed how sentence length averages shortened over time:

Pre-Elizabethan times: 50 words per sentence
Elizabethan times: 45 words per sentence
Victorian times: 29 words per sentence
Sherman’s time: 23 words per sentence.

In our time, the average is down to 20 words per sentence.

B.
Ellegard Norm: The modern English sentence has an average of 17.6 words per sentence. (From 1978 study by Swedish researcher Alvar Ellegard of 1 million words corpus of 20th century American English writing called the Brown Corpus collected by Brown University in 1964)

C. “What is Happening to Written English?”

Essentially, the sentence has become shorter – quite dramatically. In a study by Brock Haussamen (1994) using text from a variety of sources, the average sentence length was shown to have reduced from 40-70 in the period 1600-1700 to the low 20s in the 1990s.

Year 1600 - 1700: Sentence length 40 - 70 words
Year 1800 - 1900: Sentence length 30 - 40 words
Year 1990s: Sentence length 20s

D. Comparison of average sentence length of several writers

Jane Austen: 42
John Steinbeck: 18.4
D. H. Lawrence: 13.5

E.  “Editing Tip: Sentence Length”

" ... the average sentence length for Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who can be considered representative of a modern English writer with a general audience, is 12 words ..."

F.  “The long sentence: A disservice to science in the Internet age”

If we want the fullness of science in necessarily long papers to be appreciated, it must increasingly be written in short sentences.

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